Why the Emmys’ Reality Categories Continue to Be the Toughest to Break Into

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The Emmy category for competition series should conceivably be the most dynamic one out there. Ditto for the structured and unstructured reality categories. Yet there’s a surprisingly stagnant nature to them.

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Part of that is just the nature of ongoing reality TV. Shows that were hits 20 years ago… are still hits. Unlike scripted series, which mostly have short shelf lives (with exceptions, such as animated series and procedurals that can shift cast in and out), competition and reality shows are refreshing themselves virtually every season — and as a result, can conceivably go on forever.

But that’s why they’re not budging from the Emmy race. The competition race has had just four winners across 19 years, since it got its own category in 2003: CBS’ “The Amazing Race” (10 times), VH1’s “RuPaul’s Drag Race” (four times), NBC’s “The Voice” (four times) and Bravo’s “Top Chef ” (once).

“RuPaul’s Drag Race” is currently on a streak and is very likely heading to its fifth win. The franchise is so strong that last year, the companion series “RuPaul’s Drag Race: Untucked,” also on VH1, won for unstructured reality program. “RuPaul’s Drag Race” is a fun, well-crafted franchise led by an iconic host and features the kind of joy and LGBTQ+ representation we need.

There was a lot of grumbling over the years at “The Amazing Race’s” dominance. As a megafan — I organized my own version for my 30th birthday, with Phil Keoghan at the finish line! — I can’t be mad at it. I often ask married exec producers Bertram van Munster and Elise Doganieri just where they put all those Emmys — 20 between the two of them for the “Race” alone.

But the fact that these shows continue to be great only exacerbates the problem. Much like the variety talk field, it’s hard to demand a shakeup in the nominees when they’re all worthy. There are just too many reality shows to recognize.

’90 Day Fiance’ - Credit: Screenshot Courtesy of YouTube/TLC
’90 Day Fiance’ - Credit: Screenshot Courtesy of YouTube/TLC

Screenshot Courtesy of YouTube/TLC

The “90 Day Fiancé” franchise is one of the most popular on TV, yet it’s never received awards acclaim at the same level as its ratings success.

“I think sometimes people put shows like ‘90 Day’ to the side,” says executive producer Matt Sharp. “This is a super authentic show. Anyone that sits down and watches it, realizes that this is something more, this is a documentary about love in America and love in the world right now.”

For Scout Prods.’ CCO Rob Eric, it cuts both ways. In structured reality, his company’s Netflix series “Queer Eye” has dominated in recent years. But in competition, the bottleneck of nominees there means that the company’s HBO Max series, “Legendary,” is still angling for a slot.

“Content isn’t going to start slowing down, it’s only going to increase,” Eric says. “You’re going to see the same shows year after year, because there’s a limited amount of categories and it’s five votes. So it’d be great to see that category open up so that you can see more diversity within.”

At the same time, just as it took a few years for “Drag Race” to enter and then dominate, Eric says it’s about playing the long game. “‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ opened the doors for shows like ‘Legendary.’ We do see a lot of repeat [nominees], but I also think that those shows are paving the way for others to put up a good fight and to try to get into that category. It’s now up to Academy members to look and say, ‘I really liked this show as well!’”

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